Thursday, 16 February 2012

'Postcards From the Zoo' Berlinale (Competition) review:

The quirky Indonesian feature 'Kebun Binatang' - or 'Postcards From the Zoo' - is a disarming and beautifully shot competition oddity from a mono-monikered director known as Edwin. In it a young girl named Lana, played with great charm by Ladya Cheryl, spends her formative years living alongside the animals in the confines of Jakarta zoo, where she obsesses over the solitary giraffe. She doesn't work there but lives with a band of misfits on the premises until one day she is asked to leave by the zoo authorities.

She then joins up with a magical (possibly imaginary) cowboy (Nicholas Saputra) who teaches this naïve and entirely passive spirit about magic. She becomes her assistant until, one day, he disappears from her life just as suddenly as he entered it and Lana (nonplussed as ever) embarks on a new phase of her life as a prostitute in a gentleman's sauna. Wearing the number "33" and viewed from behind one-way glass by the establishment's clientele, Lana is evidently now living out her life in much the same way as the giraffe she recites facts about endlessly.

Though there are undoubtedly many ways to interpret this elliptical, metaphorical journey - on a personal and societal level - for me the most compelling reading (at least that I've thought of) frames it as a tale about the nature of viewer complicity. The magician ceases to exist after she first enters the seedy world of the sauna-brothel: has the innocence (and audience engagement) that requires magic to work left her at this point? Likewise aren't we all complicit in the morally questionable practise of keeping of exotic animals in captivity, subsidising this industry whenever we visit a zoo? I know I'm guilty of this.

But most profoundly I felt this theme resonate strongly through a scene in which a customer asks Lana to change clothes (into a skin-tight leopard suit, no less). Here she tells the man not to look at her, but he does anyway as soon as her back is turned. But as we judge him for his voyeurism it dawns on us that we are also watching her undress, perpetuating this violent cycle of endless leering.

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